A friend of mine was at the market on Saturday afternoon, buying some fruit. The woman gave him a bag of bananas with a friendly “here you are, dear”. Not only did he accept her term of endearment without question, he responded with a “thanks love”, language he would not normally use. As a business professional, my friend would never use such speech patterns in the workplace, knowing he would likely be hauled over the proverbial coals by one of his colleagues. So why is it OK in the market?
He contacted me to ask what he thought were a couple of simple questions about the use of language “how do we know what language to use” and “what is wrong with using a term of endearment”.
We all grow up learning that different places have different etiquettes; many people use expletives when out with their mates, in the pub or a sports game that they would never use at home. We learn from a young age how to differentiate what is acceptable in terms of language and behaviour from one place to another. Just think how children are at school, where there is a defined rulebook, compared to at home where generally there is none. This feeds back into the recent post about unconscious bias – early life experiences influence our behaviour and language.
As we grow up, we learn the acceptable protocols in society at large by watching and listening. The rulebook is there in the market but less clearly defined and certainly not enforced. In the workplace there is clearer definition and consequences if we go astray.
Regarding the second question, is there is anything intrinsically wrong with using terms of endearments in the workplace? It depends on the people concerned and the situation. How long or how well do people know each other? What is the context of their relationship? What are their relative positions in the organisational hierarchy? Does the language used reinforce power inequalities? These and other questions reveal the complexity of the situation.
“Mind your language” was a survey conducted by Hiscox in autumn 2007 at Small and Medium Sized Enterprises (SMEs). Their results showed, amongst other worrying findings, that half of employees in the 25-34 age group think terms of endearment such as “pet” or “love” are acceptable in the office, which of course means that 50% do not. In the same survey, 41% of bosses thought the use of such terms was acceptable. The Hiscox survey revealed regional variations too; people from the north of England appear to be more affectionate and regularly use terms of endearment towards their colleagues.
In a similar survey of female workers by OnePoll, a market research company, it was found that “love” is the most hated pet name, followed by “darling”, “babe” and “hun”. The survey revealed that nearly three-quarters of women think terms of endearment in the office are “unacceptable”, while one in four say it makes them angry. Unsurprisingly, it was mainly male bosses or colleagues who were the likeliest to address a woman with pet names.
On occasions, such language has resulted in claims of sexual harassment that have been upheld by tribunal, stating that any “conduct or language of a sexual nature can create hostile, intimidating or humiliating working environments”.
This leaves me going back to my friend to suggest taking a cautious approach. You will not cause a problem or any difficulty if you only use respectful language. No-one will be offended by formality or courteousness; terms of endearment clearly have their place, but it’s not the workplace.